The Pittsburgh Steelers’ season ended a few weeks earlier that they had planned it to, but now that their 2015 campaign has drawn to a conclusion, it’s time to wrap things up and take stock of where they are and how they got there. Part of that process involves holding player exit meetings at the conclusion of each season.
Of course, we’re not privy to the specifics that go on in each of these meetings between head coach and player, and whomever else might be involved in any particular discussion, but if we were conducting them, it might go something like this.
Player: Antwon Blake
Experience: 4 Years
Antwon Blake is the latest whipping boy for the Pittsburgh Steelers faithful, but any impartial observer would be doing a disservice in not acknowledging that much if not most of the criticism spat in his direction was well-deserved—or at the very least, accurate.
At least in terms of personnel, the Steelers greatest blunder in utilizing Blake on the field actually came in the season opener, during which they mistakenly trusted his unsound footwork enough to line him up across from Julian Edelman in the slot on several occasions, among the top, if not elite slot receivers currently in the game. It is telling that he played just 12 snaps in the slot all season, with the majority coming in that game.
Of course, that was not the greatest blunder pertaining to his play in toto; that would be the decision to continue to play him extensively, week in and week out, in spite of a very obvious hand ligament injury that unquestionably had a profound impact on his ability to tackle cleanly. He also likely aggravated his shoulder during the season as well that exacerbated the issue.
Blake actually missed a stunning amount of tackles, with Pro Football Focus claiming that he set a PFF-era (since 2007) record in recording 28 tackles by their counts, and I have no compelling reason to dispute, at the very least, the ballpark of that figure. He did miss a number of tackles that would have been comical had it been less of an issue for the team.
Beyond that, he also had more than his fair share of struggles simply in playing coverage, having gotten burned deep a few times, but more importantly, struggling to stay with shifty receivers with his choppy footwork that neutralizes his natural speed by hindering his short-area explosiveness.
Opposing quarterbacks were well aware of the issues surrounding Blake and targeted him heavily, and PFF maintains that he also led the league in yards allowed in coverage, which is another statistics that I have no compelling reason to dispute.
But it would be unfair to ignore the fact that his play was far from universally bad. He recorded two interceptions during the season, one a crucial pick-six in a victory with the Steelers down their franchise quarterback, the other an end zone pick that finished with a quality return. He recorded 112 interception return yards in all.
In addition to those figures, he also recorded 11 passes defensed, caused a forced fumble, and recorded the first sack of his career as well. He also was an asset to the special teams, working as a jammer, in one instance helping to spring Antonio Brown for a touchdown.
In all, the negatives unquestionably outweighed the positives for Blake in 2015, but it has not convinced me that he is incapable of contributing. With a healthy 2016 in a role more suited to his skills, as a depth player, I believe he is entitled to return to the Steelers, a statement that I know will do me no favors with those who read this.